Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bartok Third Piano Concerto and Anton Bruckner's Apocalyptic Eighth Symphony fill Avery Fisher Hall


The New York Philharmonic has performed a major Bartok and Bruckner work in a concert this weekend that has performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Tuesday.  Alan Gilbert conducted and Yefim Bronfman was the piano soloist.

The NYPhil put out a warning that there would be no late seating, and the concert was sold out.  The Bartok (below), does have separate movements so seating might have been permissible. The concert was very nearly sold out.

The concert opened with the Piano Concerto #3 by Bela Bartok.  This was his last work, composed in the summer of 1945 when he was dying of leukemia while living in New York State.  His pupil Tibor Serly composed the final seventeen measures, but there is evidence he had evidence from Bartok the last night of Bartok’s life in a hospital.  The 25 minute work has always seemed a bit playful, yet sometimes lush, even Brahmsian in spots.  The opening Allegretto is somewhat light in tone, with a second subject in the unusual mediant key (that is A relative to the home “courtly” key of E).  That’s rather unusual in sonata structures.  The second movement (Adagio religioso, misprinted as Allegro religioso in the program notes) has a quiet theme in the strings and Bartok’s typical “night music”.  

The finale is almost a perpetual motion, somewhat fugal.  The very end comes with a rush of loud chords.  I sat on the right side, and the orchestra tended to drown the piano.


The Anton Bruckner work was the 84-minute Symphony #8 in C Minor, originally 1887, with an official edition with minimal corrections by Schalk published in 1955, used here. The work has been called “The Apocalyptic.”  I recall in those horrible William and Mary days, that a chum said he had a Westminster recording that took five sides.  I guess the nearly half-hour slow movement was itself split onto two sides?

The opening movement is a clear sonata form, but with two subjects somewhat interconnected.  One of the advantages of sonata form in the 19th century was that it made the music easier for the ear to learn, since, in pre-tech days, people had to depend on live concerts to hear and become familiar with music.  The movement is harmonically rich and dour, and reminds me of the concentration camps as portrayed in the media.  It is the only opening movement in a Bruckner symphony to end quietly.   Many of Bruckner’s symphonies were not popular at first, until the Seventh.  Compared to other major romantic composers, Bruckner leaves the impression of composing the same work many times on some people. 

The first movement dies away in a straightforward manner, leading to a famous if somewhat lumbering scherzo, still in C Minor.  Again, Bruckner nearly hypnotizes us with repetition, making sure we learn the music.  The trio has a slow theme to anticipate the slow movement. The theme, in 3/4, is the "Deutscher Michel" theme (Wiki reference with some of the themes in score; try playing them).  Notice that if the same notes were played as 6/8 it would not be as effective.    

The half-hour slow movement in D-flat is viewed as the crown of the work.  In a pre-concert talk, Mark Travis pointed out a similarity in material to the slow movement of Beethoven’s emperor concerto (just as he noted a similarity in an opening movement theme to one in the Beethoven ninth).  Travis also noted that Bruckner simply takes his time playing out an idea with modulations, expanding the sense of space-time.  The slow movement piles on one passionate climax after another, leading to what sounds like a restatement from Wagner (“Parsifal?”) at the apex.  The slow movement inspires a similar slow movement in the same key in the Shostakovich Fifth. 

The Finale, back in C Minor, combines all the material from the first three movements (common in Bruckner) in a new sonata structure, but the development is fugal, almost Bach-like.  It opens with a "call to arms", as if nothing short of The Second Coming were in the offing. In the brazen coda now in C Major, Bruckner re-uses the scherzo theme, now with a Wagnerian effect that Furtwangler would use at the end of his own Second Symphony.  Finally three octaves, on the notes E, D, C, in fortissimo, conclude the work.

The double bass section of the orchestra was large, with one of the players smirking!  The audience tended to be young, with one person telling me he came to hear the Bruckner because he played trumpet and trombone himself.

My own feeling is that the “completed” Ninth (reviewed March 8, 2011) is more compelling than the Eighth.   

You can check a colorful review of the music in the New York Times by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim here.

Update: Dec. 27, 2015

Here's a video by Deryck Cooke analyzing the 1887 version shared on Facebook by Sebastien Letocart. 

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